Why a senator feels untouchable in DWI case

Richard Martinez

My search for state Sen. Richard Martinez’s most notorious letter has gone nowhere.

Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, wrote the letter 16 years ago in hopes of influencing a judge to be lenient with a drunken driver who killed a man.

The deadly driver was Benita Marquez. After a day of boozing, she got in her car and veered across the center line of N.M. 76 near Chimayó. Marquez crashed into another vehicle, taking the life of the driver, James Cisneros.

Her blood-alcohol level was 0.36 percent — more than four times the limit for a motorist. Police officers wondered how someone that drunk could even manage to get her key in the ignition.

There was more. Marquez had two previous convictions for drunken driving.

Cisneros, a former police officer in Questa, also was intoxicated. This gave the case an added dimension of horror. Laws against drunken driving took up plenty of space in the code book but were ignored all the time.

With the facts so firmly against her, Marquez pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and asked for mercy.

Martinez and a fellow state legislator stood by her.

Then-Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, sat in the courtroom with Marquez’s friends and family during the sentencing hearing.

Martinez already had sent his letter of support for Marquez to state District Judge Timothy Garcia. Garcia saw the case much as Martinez did.

The judge sentenced Marquez to only 30 days in jail. He could have sent her to prison for up to eight years.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving criticized the sentence as outrageous. Never had the organization seen a repeat offender who killed someone punished so lightly. A prosecutor called Marquez’s sentence “a joke.”

With Martinez himself now charged with aggravated drunken driving and reckless driving, I hunted for the letter he’d written on behalf of Marquez. It has disappeared.

If Martinez’s letter was ever in the court file, someone removed it. By most accounts, it vanished after publicity about Marquez’s crime intensified.

But Martinez once gave the Rio Grande Sun a synopsis of what he wrote.

“I simply asked the judge to give her the counseling she needs,” he said. “This woman needs help. She doesn’t need to go to jail.”

Keep in mind that New Mexico was under a national microscope because of drunks killing people on state roads. Legislators, including Martinez, had spoken of the need for stronger laws.

But if a crony or constituent of Martinez was the one doing the killing, counseling was the senator’s desired course of inaction.

An editorial writer in Española predicted a backlash, saying the letter Martinez wrote on behalf of the drunken driver “could prove to be political suicide.”

It proved to have no effect at all on Martinez’s political fortunes. He has since been reelected to the Senate four times.

This is one reason Martinez is speaking so confidently about continuing in the Legislature if he’s convicted of aggravated drunken driving.

He plowed his Mercedes SUV into the rear of a Jeep, injuring two people. Police smelled booze on Martinez. The senator admitted to drinking beer or wine, his story as unsteady as he was.

Then he refused to take a breath-alcohol test, all the while protesting his arrest as unwarranted.

In court last week, Martinez said a conviction wouldn’t be cause for him to give up his seat.

He even told my colleague, Jens Erik Gould, that being a defendant in a drunken-driving case “is probably going to make me a better senator.”

Sure, and cougars will become house pets.

The reason Martinez can ooze arrogance is that he still has supporters pounding him on the back. He’s brought home pork for some and written supportive letters for others. They’re standing by him, just as he stood by a repeat drunken driver who killed a man.

Martinez knows apathy might be widespread enough for him to survive.

If he draws a challenger in the Democratic primary, he believes his supporters will outnumber those who want a senator who obeys the laws he makes. And the Republicans are so anemic, they probably won’t field anyone to run against a wounded incumbent.

That’s what it’s come to in Northern New Mexico. A senator up to his eyeglasses in scandal is running to win when he should be running for cover — embarrassed by his own misconduct.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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